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LA Theater Review

Cliffhanger

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James Yaffe's suspense comedy misses a chance at being a pungent commentary on prematurely putting the aged—in this case a tenured philosophy professor—out to pasture. Instead, after a first half that plays like a deliciously dark comedy, it lapses into suspense-thriller mode, with the kind of plot twists popularized by such works as Sleuth and Deathtrap. Henry Lowenthal (Lewis P. Leighton), a kindly old fossil who teaches an ethics course at a small-town Rocky Mountain–area college, has long coveted the philosophy department chair. Edith Wilshire (Lisa Cicchetti), a former student of his who now heads the department, tells Henry he's instead being retired, prompting Henry to land a fatal blow—or is it?—to her skull with a bronze bust of his idol, Socrates. Police lieutenant detective David DeVito (Jeff Cheezum) is sent to investigate Edith's death, while Melvin (John Schwendinger), an annoyingly persistent student, tries to blackmail Henry.

Director Mitchell Nunn's staging is refreshingly breezy. His cast hasn't quite mastered its cues but presumably will in short order. Leighton's Henry is a sniveling fuddy-duddy struggling to reconcile his lifelong belief in doing the right thing with his attempts to save his own skin. Harriet Whitmyer displays superb comic timing as Henry's wife, Polly, who cheerfully masterminds the plot to stage Edith's death as a suicide. Nunn, Leighton, and Whitmyer play up Yaffe's humanizing treatment of the suspense genre by focusing on the couple's mutual devotion. Missing is an edgier clash between Henry and Edith: At the top of the play, Leighton could be more supercilious and Cicchetti's Edith more arrogant and loathsome.

Schwendinger's Melvin is aptly cocky as well as volatile and comically schizophrenic. Cheezum's cop is a clean-cut straight arrow who's jaded yet still has room to appreciate the shades of gray that come with the job.

Presented by and at the Long Beach Playhouse, Mainstage Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. June 19July 25. Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (562) 494-1014 or www.lbph.com

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